“The Second Person Singular”: the (Impossible) “Being-With” in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

Yasna Bozhkova

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle- Paris 3


  1. From the 1915 The Book of Repulsive Women to the posthumously published poems of Creatures in an Alphabet, the singular seems to be at the core of Djuna Barnes’s writings, which are penned in a strikingly original, idiosyncratic and often puzzling style, and peopled by peculiar, outlandish beings. Thus, unsurprisingly, singularity – in the sense of oddness – is also intrinsically related to the critical reception of her works, which have often been both praised and criticized for their strange and perplexing quality. As Alex Goody notes, “Barnes’s work has often been described in terms that emphasize its sui generis status”.1 Melissa Jane Hardie similarly foregrounds Barnes’s “perception as an oddity within modernism” and explains that “Accounts of Barnes as an historical oddity or ‘throwback’ haunted her career”.2 For instance, Barnes’s novel Ryder was described by a contemporary reviewer as “a bewildering hodge-podge of the obscene and the virginal, of satire and wistfulness […] – a book that absolutely battled classification, but that surely is a most amazing thing to have come from a woman’s hand”.3 Likewise, Susan Sniader Lanser introduces Ladies Almanack as a “singular, irreverent, and often ambiguous book that delighted for decades the people it parodied”.4 In her book Improper Modernism: Djuna Barnes’s Bewildering Corpus, Daniela Caselli contends that Barnes’s entire œuvre may be described as “bewildering”.

  2. Yet, of all of Barnes’s works, Nightwood places the singular most decidedly at the center of its experimental poetics. Written in a language closer to poetry than to fiction, as T.S. Eliot observed, Nightwood is a one-of-a-kind work that resists all categorization, since it not only breaks all the codes of realist and romantic novels but can also “only with the greatest difficulty be assimilated into the canon of high modernist practice”.5 Nightwood dismantles the traditional notion of plot: its “plot” (to the extent that there is one) revolves around the enigmatic elusiveness of the androgynous Robin Vote, whose passage leaves all the other characters in a frustrated longing for erotic and emotional union, enmeshed in a collective dream of yearning for her. The portmanteau word “nightwood” becomes the metaphoric core of singularity in the novel: it designates at once the endlessly fleeting Robin (based on Barnes’s lover Thelma Wood), the temporality of the night, a time of wandering, solitude and frustrated desire for Robin, and an increasingly surreal dreamscape (“wood”) superimposed on the backdrop of the city of Paris and the nearby Bois de Boulogne where the action takes place. Thus, “nightwood” is gradually transformed into a “conceptual space in which the normative becomes, for once in history, the excluded, the taboo, and the unmentionable”.6 On one level, the singular in Nightwood targets the prescriptive, repressive norms of bourgeois society, heterosexual desire, the patriarchal family, and tradition as a whole. Barnes rejects the heteronormative pressures of society by bringing to the foreground a cluster of marginal, queer7 beings, excluded by society’s dominant structures. Yet, she does not transform then into an alternative community, making the possibility of amorous and spiritual union between them problematic. Thus, on another level, singularity defined as oddness, alterity or queerness is inextricably intertwined with the idea of loneliness, isolation and acute existential anguish. By contrast to Ladies Almanack, where Barnes creates a vibrant, alternative homosexual community of “Paris-Lesbos”,8 in Nightwood lesbianism and queerness do not lead to a liberating sense of community or to the possibility of finding meaning and fulfillment in a same-sex union, and are instead intrinsically related to the sense of the existential isolation of the solitary, one-of-a-kind individual. By placing in the foreground the elusive Robin’s solitary wandering, which eludes both the heterosexual and the homosexual couple, the novel seems to interrogate the very need of the individual to bond with another as an essential aspect of the human condition, a search for meaning and fixity that proves illusory and has a devastating impact on the integrity of the self. The novel seems to thus problematize the state of “being-with-one another”, which Jean-Luc Nancy erects as a fundamental category of the human condition: “Being cannot be anything but being-with-one-another, circulating in the with and as the with of this singularly plural coexistence”.9 On the one hand, this fundamental need for “being-with”, this yearning for Robin as an ever-inaccessible Other, leaves all the characters entangled in a collective dream-space which may be seen as a “singular plural” psycho-geography of the night. On the other hand, the novel seems to question this possibility of truly “being-with-one another”, since it puts to the test not only the idea of community, but also the model of both the heterosexual and the homosexual couple as allowing spiritual, amorous, and erotic union, at times making the very possibility of linguistic communication between the characters problematic.

  3. As Joseph Frank argues in an illuminating and oft-quoted early analysis of the novel, “The eight chapters of Nightwood are like search lights, probing the darkness each from a different direction yet ultimately illuminating the same entanglement of the human spirit”.10 I shall attempt to disentangle the “pattern” in which the singular characters of the novel are “knotted together”,11 by showing how it unravels in three successive stages. Each new stage is ushered in by Robin’s inexplicable departures, which function as narrative thresholds – the aborted heterosexual union of Felix and Robin, then the failed homosexual relationship of Robin and Nora, and finally, the moment when the doctor takes over the narrative, which transforms the acute anguish and suffering unlocked by these marginal individual stories into an existential outcry, endowing them with a collective dimension illuminating the human condition as a whole.

“Com[ing] upon the odd”12: Between Replicating Tradition and the Call of the Singular

  1. The novel begins with an ironic focus on the inertia of tradition, embodied by the family narrative of Felix Volkbein, whose obsession with continuing his falsely aristocratic lineage through marriage at a first glance seems to be the very opposite of the singularity of the individual. As Jeanette Winterson puts it in her preface to Nightwood, Baron Felix “represents a world that is disappearing”.13 In the opening chapter, Barnes establishes this preoccupation with origins, lineage, generational transmission and heritage not only thematically but also formally, through a narrative style that both more closely resembles (compared to what follows) the style of traditional novels and subtly parodies it. From the very beginning, the narrative voice creates a subtle tension between traditional patterns of intergenerational repetition which structure family narratives, and an unwanted or partially accepted singularity, which becomes the source of a desire to be “like the others”. Both Felix and his father Guido before him are incarnations of the figure of the “Wandering Jew”,14 a collective identity which may paradoxically be defined as being singular. On the one hand, the narrative voice stresses that Guido has lived “as all Jews do” (5), i.e. can be seen as affiliated to an essentialized collective identity and being stereotypically identical to those of his “race”, but on the other hand, he is depicted as an “alien” and “an outcast”, perpetually “troubled and alone” (5), because “In the Vienna of Volkbein’s day” few are those who “welcom[e] Jews” (7). This unwanted, repudiated singularity, which marginalizes Volkbein and prevents him from being “like the others”, is explicitly posited by the narrative voice as the source of his absurd scheme of fabricating an aristocratic lineage in order to acquire social respectability: “He had adopted the sign of the cross […] and a list of progenitors (including their Christian names) who had never existed” (5-6). This attempt to adopt a different identity through forging external signs of representation – such as the coat of arms “with the bifurcated wings of the House of Habsburg” (3), “Roman fragments” (8), the “impressive copies of the Medici shield” and particularly the “life-sized portraits of Guido’s claim to father and mother” (9) bearing an accidental likeness to himself –  can ultimately be seen as a form of racial “passing”. This masquerade is ultimately not unlike the doctor’s cross-dressing in order to acquire a female identity: “the whole conception might have been a Mardi Gras whim” (9). As Nancy Bombaci puts it, this desire to blend in and be like the others can be seen as an “aristocratic drag act”.15

  2. Felix is presented as a more complex case than his father Guido, since for him, both his true origins and the forgery behind the tale of lineage have been obscured, a blind spot which is signaled by the ellipsis surrounding his birth, childhood, and youth16: “At this point exact history stopped for Felix who, thirty years later, turned up in the world with these facts, the two portraits, and nothing more” (10). Having acquired a “single, clear, and unalterable”, though completely falsified, sense of identity “from the memory of one single woman, [his] aunt” (119-120), he blindly replicates tradition, trying to become an identical copy of his father: “Felix called himself Baron Volkbein, as his father before him” (8). Yet, unlike Guido, who believes he has figured out “the sum total of what is the Jew” (4-5) and attempts to conceal his alterity, for Felix, Jewishness is a spectral singularity whose precise origin can neither be exactly located nor fully explained. This spectral alterity causes him to make desperate attempts to counterfeit tradition: “His rooms were taken because a Bourbon had been carried from them to death. He kept a valet and a cook; the one because he looked like Louis the Fourteenth and the other because she resembled Queen Victoria, Victoria in another cheaper material” (13). It is because of this spectral singularity that, as Boone observes, even though Felix “hopelessly yearn[s] to be counted among the dominant culture’s ‘insiders’”, making obsessive attempts to blend in and acquire aristocratic cachet, he paradoxically “find[s] himself irresistibly drawn to its fringes”,17 inevitably “com[ing] upon the odd” (12). As Goody points out, in spite of his obsession for respectability, “Felix is attracted to a huge range of […] activities […] that reverberate with an ‘oddness’, in a search for a form that could reflect a stable and singular sense of himself back to him”.18 The narrative makes an ironic slippage from his obsession with actual aristocracy, whose titles represent the impersonal continuation of tradition from one generation to the next, to his attraction to the fake titles of the circus performers, “gaudy” and “cheap” like their costumes with which they “dazzle boys about town” (14). The odd, androgynous figure of “Frau Mann, The Duchess of Broadback”, makes particularly explicit the ironic parallel between the Volkbeins’ fake Barony as a form of masquerade meant to “dazzle [their] own estrangement” (14) and the novel’s focus on cross-dressing and flamboyant gender “masquerade” through the figure of the doctor. As Irene Gammel suggests, Barnes was inspired for the figure of the androgynous “Frau Mann”, with the Anglo-German pun in her name and title, by the radical eccentricity of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven,19 a pioneering German-born New York Dada poet, assemblage sculptor and body performance artist, whose title, acquired through her ephemeral marriage to an actual German Baron but then provocatively used as a Dada, épater le bourgeois manifestation of artistic aristocracy, became just another costume in her radically queer, gender-bending body performances, one of which, featuring a “bodice of lozenges” (16) and documented in a spectacular 1915 photograph, becomes the source of Frau Mann’s depiction in the novel. Thus, the doctor’s seemingly paradoxical claim that “There’s something missing and whole about the Baron Felix” (29) may be read in the sense that he blindly believes in social lineage as a key to identity, hoping to reproduce patterns of tradition which are not only obsolete in modernity but also exposed as counterfeit. What is “missing” in him is the awareness that modern man and woman can no longer be “whole”, and can only be fragmented, androgynous and tormented by a split between different identities or inexplicable urges, as Robin, Nora and particularly the doctor will prove to be later on.

  3. Felix’s encounter with Robin most poignantly stages this blindness or insufficiency of character that can be seen as a modern version of a tragic flaw, and attracts him to her for the wrong reasons. As many critics have noted, the scene when Felix and the doctor encounter the unconscious Robin is staged in such a way as to foreground Robin as a quasi-supernatural embodiment of singularity. She is an incarnation of “the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds – meet of child and desperado” (38), and the encounter with her triggers an otherworldly experience:

She closed her eyes, and Felix, who has been looking into them intently because of their mysterious and shocking blue, found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids – the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye. […] Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey. (41)

The narrative envelops Robin in a singular aura through a profusion of defamiliarizing, dehumanizing and exoticizing conceits, including the ekphrastic simile comparing the scene to a “painting by the douanier Rousseau” (38), the use of the French somnambule, the images revolving around beastly hybridity and devouring hunger, and the decadent sensuality. As Brian Glavey observes, “Robin Vote is the singularity around which Barnes’s other characters circle, a woman described as though she were a picture, a two-dimensional character whose attractiveness is linked with her silence”.20 Monika Kaup notes that in this scene Robin decidedly emerges as an emblem of the alterity at the core of Nightwood’s baroque imagery:

Robin is a supernatural character even more marginal than the others because she is the embodiment of everything that is alien and deviant in the human social order: an emblem of the female Other in Western culture, Robin represents the empty center of Nightwood’s tragic narrative. She is both the paradigmatic object of the characters’ desire and the focal object of the novel’s baroque ornate, proliferating discourse.21

Indeed, there are palpable baroque overtones in the ornate, variegating style of Nightwood, and particularly in the representation of Robin. Arguably, her depiction as an unsettling cross between girl and boy, human and beast, child and desperado, eland and unicorn, may be seen as the embodiment of baroque singularity, which Gilles Deleuze defines as “the point of inflection”.22

  1. Yet, the narrative voice stresses the fact that Felix is “incapable of abandon”, and thus remains only partially aware of the singular attraction of Robin, misinterpreting its signs:

Something of this emotion came over Felix, but being racially incapable of abandon, he felt that he was looking upon a figurehead in a museum, which though static, no longer roosting on its cutwater, seemed yet to be going against the wind; as if this girl were the converging halves of a broken fate, setting face, in sleep, toward itself in time, as an image and its reflection in a lake seem parted only by the hesitation in the hour. (41)

Though seemingly enticed by her striking nature, and although the encounter with Robin seems to be the culmination of his attraction to other marginal characters like the circus performers, Frau Mann, and the doctor, he decides to marry Robin not out of fascination for her peculiarity, but to continue his lineage by producing an heir. As Goody observes, in his attraction to Robin Felix is in search of fixity, paradoxically trying to escape his spectral singularity of origins through coming upon another, more radical form of singularity: “Even in his marriage to Robin […], Felix is in search of ‘density’ (N: 170) that would establish a fixity that his Jewish heritage denies”.23 Although Felix has, as the doctor senses, “experienced something unusual” (42) in the presence of Robin, he proves utterly unable to decipher the nature of this enigmatic singularity, and interprets it as a timely opportunity to “replicate” himself through a possession and “domestication” of the other: “The Baron admitted that he had; he wished a son who would feel as he felt about the ‘great past’ […] With an American anything can be done” (42, emphasis added). He perceives Robin as material to be molded into the suitable role of wife and mother: “the destiny for which he had chosen her; that she might bear sons who would recognize and honour the past” (49). Yet, Robin’s mute acceptance of his courtship and passive, docile malleability, a parody of traditional female submissiveness, gradually turns out to be nothing but a mirage, a lure, which conceals something quite other: “with Robin [his chosen destiny] seemed to stand before him without effort” (46, emphasis added), “and suddenly into his mind came the question: ‘What is wrong?’” (51). The elusive Robin emerges as the disruptive element of his inertia, his desire to blindly reproduce patterns of tradition: in spite of her seeming passivity, she ineluctably slips away from Felix’s project for her, thereby asserting her irreducible singularity. As Goody observes, Felix’s failed existential project with Robin is then parodically rewritten as an “‘odd trio,’ a degenerate family unit”,24 with Frau Mann, the Duchess of Broadback, taking the place of the “Baronin”, thereby turning both the traditional family unit as a nucleus of society and the social hierarchy of aristocracy into a travesty. The child, Guido, named after his grandfather and sole heir of the barony, functions as an ironic token of the degeneracy of a social model gone awry, and a symbol of his father’s failure to live up to his own expectations. Yet, in spite of his deficiency, like his mother he embodies an alterity that may in fact turn out to be a form of superiority, as the doctor says:

I would carry that boy’s mind like a bowl picked up in the dark; you do not know what’s in it. He feeds on odd remnants that we have not priced; he eats a sleep that is not our sleep. There is more in sickness than the name of that sickness. In the average person is the peculiar that has been scuttled, and the peculiar the ordinary that has been sunk; people always fear what requires watching. (128)

  1. Thus, the unexplained departure of Robin, “the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds” (38), and who leaves the world of Felix with the terror of a dreamer that has woken up with a start from a nightmare, creates a crucial mise en abyme, a dream within a dream which becomes the driving force of the novel: on the one hand, the outdated inertias of social hierarchy and heteronormative, patriarchal society, are exposed as a form of mechanical sleepwalking, but on the other hand, as this layer of “normalcy” is cast aside, in the world of the “night” there remains nothing but the delirious nocturnal solitary wandering and increasing existential anguish.

“She is Myself”: Wandering in the Dreamscape of Nightwood

  1. Once this heteronormative inertia is aborted and set aside, with the heroine’s act of leaving her stifling marriage ironically posited as the true start of the narrative, finding an alternative truth and fulfillment in a lesbian union paradoxically proves equally problematic. While there is no explicit question of love between Felix and Robin, finding love aggravates, rather than alleviates, the suffering in Nightwood. Increasingly, in this second stage of the novel, it becomes clear that beyond the rejection of the heteronormative pressures of bourgeois society, what is at stake in the novel is to probe into the nature of the desire of the individual to find meaning, fixity, and a sense of self through another, and in union with another. This desire for completion of the self through another is endlessly thwarted, denied. While Boone suggests that Barnes’s narrative seeks “the absolute devaluation of the monogamous (and heterosexual) couple as the desired ‘end’ of love” (241), one may argue that the novel goes further than that, questioning the very need of one to be in a relationship with another and the ability of any kind of couple to bring meaning and fixity to human existence. Inhumanly, “monstrously alone” (155), and remaining impenetrable to both the other characters and the reader, since the narrative never gives us any access to her interior monologue and psychological motivation, Robin endlessly resists first Felix’s, then Nora’s and finally Jenny’s longing for possession and union with her, reasserting her elusive singularity.

  2. In the second part of the novel the spectral, subconscious singularity of Felix, who hopelessly yearns to blend in, gives way to the point of view of Nora, who embodies the singular subject fully aware of their own individuality and estranged from the social order. While Felix seeks to mechanically reproduce his lineage, Nora is fully aware of her alterity to her own background: “There was some derangement in her equilibrium that kept her immune from her own descent” (57). An alter ego of Barnes herself, Nora embodies the historically male figure of the intellectual as a being alienated from society: “The world and its history were to Nora like a ship in a bottle; she herself was outside and unidentified, endlessly embroiled in a preoccupation without a problem” (59). Before meeting Robin, she is described as a singular being arrested in a state of perpetual fall:

There is a gap in ‘world pain’ through which the singular falls continually and forever; a body falling in observable space, deprived of the privacy of disappearance; as if privacy, moving relentlessly away, by the very sustaining power of its withdrawal kept the body eternally moving downward, but in one place, and perpetually before the eye. Such a singular was Nora. (56-57)

This arrested movement of perpetual fall in a kind of maelstrom frozen in time, one of the novel’s “spatial forms”, provides a striking visualization of the Romantic and Decadent topos of the Weltschmerz (“world pain”) and the related topoi of social alienation, existential angst, spleen and melancholia characterizing the figure of the intellectual in modernity. The phrase “Such a singular” also underscores Barnes’s idiosyncratic use of the term “singular” as a common noun. As Brian Glavey argues, the phrase is somewhat paradoxical as “to be ‘such a singular’ is in a sense not to be singular at all but instead to stand for a type, to be one example among others”.25 This suggests that there is a variety of different types of “singulars” in Nightwood, like those assembled in Nora’s community of marginals, described as “[t]he strangest ‘salon’ in America” (55) – “poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love” (55). The novel seems to give the promise of an alternative queer community, composed in a rather eclectic and perhaps slightly ironic manner by a variety of marginal characters – including circus performers, artists Jews, and homosexuals among others – which have in common their exclusion from society’s dominant structures.26

  1. Yet, this initial promise of an alternative community gradually fades away: as she also succumbs to the “singular, terrible attraction” (146) of Robin, Nora is enveloped in a dreamworld in which she becomes a solitary wanderer, and “the concrete Paris of the twenties fades into an interior landscape and becomes part of an anatomy of night”.27 Nora comes to see in Robin a perfect double of herself: “She is myself. What am I to do?” (136). As the doctor later observes, for Nora Robin is “always the second person singular” (135) – a being absolutely necessary for the completion of the self. To the topos of the lover as one’s “other half”, which already unsettles the boundaries of the self, the narrative adds a dimension specific to same-sex love which proves even more destructive to the integrity of the self; as Nora says, expressing lesbian experience: “A man is another person – a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own” (152). Thus, the narrative turns into an anatomy of lesbian love and how it affects the individual self. The self that is in love is no longer fully singular, it becomes what Nancy calls a “first-person plural”,28 because it recognizes itself in another, is inhabited, as if “haunted” (60) by another, and as though impregnated by another, which threatens to destroy its integrity: “In Nora’s heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora’s blood” (62). It is this inextricable “coupling”, an often-menacing intertwining between self and other, that is the focus of the narrative. Paradoxically, for a novel that is often read as a celebration of lesbian eroticism, there are surprisingly few scenes of carnal embrace, and in the few such ones there is something of the strained, painfully intertwined poses of Picasso’s depictions of lovers, a violent desire to become one with the other, which at any moment may grow into a desire to strangle or devour the other:

Yet sometimes, going about the house, in passing each other, they would fall into an agonized embrace, looking into each other’s face, their two heads in their four hands, so strained together that the space that divided them seemed to be thrusting them apart. (63)

This scene seems to dramatize the impossible fusion of two singular beings. Paradoxically, the two lovers are both inextricably intertwined, becoming a “first person plural”, and destined to remain forever separate and locked in their own singularity. As Nancy puts it, “From one singular to another, there is contiguity but not continuity. There is proximity, but only to the extent that extreme closeness emphasizes the distancing it opens up […] the law of touching is separation”.29 What is unbearable for Nora is that even in such moments of intense intimacy, Robin retains something which remains inaccessible to her, an element of elusive, peculiar alterity, which seems to cancel the fusion of their selves: “Robin would make some movement, use a peculiar turn of phrase not habitual to her, innocent of the betrayal, by which Nora was informed that Robin had come from a world to which she would return” (63). It is this thwarted desire for a complete fusion with the other that dangerously veers towards an ultimately murderous desire to capture and possess:

Her mind became so transfixed that, by the agency of her fear, Robin seemed enormous and polarized, all catastrophes ran toward her, the magnetized predicament; and crying out, Nora would wake from sleep, going back through the tide of dreams into which her anxiety had thrown her, taking the body of Robin down with her into it, as the ground things take the corpse, with minute persistence, down into the earth, leaving a pattern of it on the grass, as if they stitched as they descended. (62)

  1. As Goody points out, in spite of their fundamentally different natures, both Felix and Nora are ultimately alike in their “attempt to capture, organise and subjectify, turning Robin into a being abstracted from the impenetrable otherness of her existence, […] which instigates their loss of Robin”.30 As she loses her lover, Nora’s self is no longer fully singular, since this inextricable intertwining with the other can never be fully undone: “the body of Robin could never be unloved, corrupt or put away” (62). Her self is further fragmented, mutilated and as though “dismember[ed]” (70) by the sight of the loved body embracing another. The loss of Robin is like “an amputation” (65) of a part of the body, leaving behind a phantom pain. As the doctor observes, seeing Nora “out walking alone” (66), love dismantles the self: “There goes the dismantled – Love has fallen off her wall. […] She sees her everywhere” (66). Nora seems to be the living embodiment of the “melancholic lover” figure Rosalind playfully describes to Orlando in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. As Victoria Smith observes, in Nora’s case the loss of the lover also triggers a loss of self, and a mode of self-representation defined by loss: “The melancholic ego […] is dependent on loss as a means through which it can represent itself”.31 The loss of the lover triggers a mirror effect in which Nora becomes a double, a shadow of Robin, seeing her everywhere and blindly following her like a sleepwalker in her nocturnal wanderings, gradually blurring the boundaries between the world of the “interminable” (67) sleepless night of anguished expectation and the world of dream where Robin is omnipresent, “Robin disfigured and eternalized by the hieroglyphics of sleep and pain” (69). Loss paradoxically entails an even more intense form of being-with, where the lost other is omnipresent.

  2. Thus, as she torments and leaves first Felix, then Nora and later Jenny, Robin paradoxically enmeshes all the other characters together in a collective dream, as the doctor tells Nora: “you are in [Nora’s] dream, you’ll never get out of it” (155). In their love for Robin, the characters have formed an inextricable plurality, a “first person plural”: as Nancy suggests, “‘We’ always expresses a plurality, expresses ‘our’ being divided and entangled”.32 In this “singular plural”33 dream, they are neither fully singular nor fully together and can by no means be called a community, since they remain isolated in their suffering and anguish. The boundaries between dream and reality are blurred by the symbolic movement of going to the bois, theatrically orchestrated by the doctor: “Where to but the woods, the sweet woods of Paris! Fais le tour du Bois !” (79). The “wood” in Nightwood is not only a dreamscape but one that is also implicitly intertextual: as Boone points out, it reads as “an oblique reference to the ‘dark wood’ that inaugurates Dante’s Inferno”,34 but it is also a reference to the Forest of Arden, as a quintessential space for the folly of the “love-shaked” opposed to the rational order of society, and defined by a Shakespearean mise en abyme of gendered identity and endless rehearsal of queer desire in the wooing-curing game of Orlando and Rosalind (played by two male actors).35 What happens in the chapter “The Squatter” is increasingly governed by dream logic, spurred on by the rhythm of the movement of the three carriages in the forest, “horse behind horse” (79), which conjures up the enchanted woods of fairy tales. The implicit pun on nightmare as night-mare connects horses to dreams, and the female horse to bad ones. Although Nora is absent in this chapter, arguably the narrative is perceived by the reader as her nightmare. It is immediately preceded by Nora’s surreal dream which ends with the unexplained terror of “something being done to Robin” (69) and by the scene in which Robin embraces Jenny in the garden for Nora to see, just as in “The Squatter”, Robin flirts with the English girl and strokes Sylvia’s hair for Jenny to see. With her “beaked head” (71) and “her long Spanish shawl, which looked ridiculous over her flimsy hoop and bodice” (79), Jenny appears as an odd, predatory bird, beast-like, dehumanized and closer to a terrifying, transmogrified creature that appears in a nightmare rather than a flesh-and-blood character. She is not only repulsive and oddly ridiculous, but also resembles a stealing magpie: “It takes a bold and authentic robber to get first-hand plunder. […] Someone else’s marriage ring was on her finger; the photograph taken of Robin for Nora sat upon her table” (72). These lines also underscore the fact that Robin is often objectified and presented as a singular, rare, precious object, a possession. As a character, Jenny is almost exclusively defined by her desire to appropriate – both in the sense of imitate and possess by stealing – the loves of others, which also amounts to stealing their identity; she is like “a person who is led to believe herself a part of the harmony of a concert to which she is listening, appropriating in some measure its identity” (78). Thus, with her “rapacity” (74), she seems to be an embodiment of Nora’s terror of being dispossessed of her precious possession, Robin, which also amounts to a usurpation of identity; she is implicitly posited by the narrative voice not only as her rival but also as her double: “[Jenny] appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora’s for Robin. She was a ‘squatter’ by instinct. […] Robin spoke of her in long, rambling, impassioned sentences – [Jenny] listened, and both loves seemed to be one and her own” (75). It is important that what happens in “The Squatter” is not simply the story of Robin being seduced by another, more attractive woman, but rather, of her being taken away by one who is markedly not attractive and who goes through the same excessive jealousy and unsuccessful desire to possess that defines Nora herself. In her histrionic display of jealousy, Jenny emerges as a parodic double of Nora, surreally multiplied many times:

Jenny began to cry slowly, the tears wet, warm and sudden in the odd misery of her face. […] [The doctor] remarked, and why he did not know, that by weeping she appeared like a single personality who, by multiplying her tears, brought herself in the position of one who is seen twenty times in twenty mirrors – still only one, but many times distressed. (81)

The histrionics of Jenny, “scratching and tearing in hysteria” (83), seem to be a theatrical, dreamlike projection, a displaced, parodic imitation of the mute, dismembering suffering of Nora. Thus, Nora’s key utterance “She is myself” ostensibly characterizes her relation not only to Robin but also to Jenny, with the selves of the three women no longer fully singular but inextricably enmeshed in an imbroglio of “insane passion” (82) of woman for woman. The other women present in the carriage, the English girl and the young Sylvia, as well as the doctor, whose true nature is said to be female, may also be seen as projections of female identity in this collective dream, and exacerbate this feeling of disturbing spectacle, which ultimately grows into terror, like the terror that causes one to wake up with a start: “And suddenly the child flung herself down on the seat, face outward, and said in a voice not suitable for a child because it was controlled with terror: ‘Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!’” (83). Thus, with this surreal multiplication of doubles, this chapter seems to lead to a paroxysm the fantasy of “being-with-Robin”, which is paradoxically both impossible, since the fusion of the two selves in love can never be complete, and impossible to undo.

“Like a thousand mice they go this way and that”: The Doctor as a Cantor of the “Singulars” of the Night

  1. The mute, striking, androgynous Robin, who always turns a deaf ear to the suffering she causes, finds her narrative opposite in the equally odd and androgynous transvestite doctor, who lives hermit-like in his tiny chambre à coucher. Inextricably entangled in a strange quartet in their dream of Robin, Felix, Nora and Jenny all turn to the doctor to voice their lament and their feeling of abandonment. Thus, the doctor’s narrative function is in a sense to be the figure of the listener, the magnified ear receiving their stories of suffering, misery and anguish, becoming as though impregnated with them. In different manners, both Robin and the doctor are singular to the extent of being “outside the ‘human type’ […] monstrously alone” (155), i.e. immune to the desire of being bonded with another, which emerges as the essence of the human condition. Although the doctor is certainly not above the idea of erotic coupling, since Nora surprises him waiting for a visitor, like Robin he seems to remain unscathed by the love sickness that all the other characters suffer from: “I am an empty pot going forward, saying my prayers in a dark place; because I know no one loves, I least of all, and that no one loves me” (156). The narrative voice obliquely attributes his immunity to love to his androgyny, the fact that he is already double, both man and woman: “He dresses to lie beside himself, who is so constructed that love, for him, can only be something special” (86, emphasis added). While Robin is a perpetually mute, enigmatic embodiment of animality, “a wild thing caught in a woman’s skin” (155), the doctor, her narrative opposite, embodies language, and particularly the possibility to come to terms with both desire and suffering, and to find a sense of identity, through linguistic expression: “He presides over the story as a commentator, as Nightwood’s central discursive authority and source of knowledge and comfort” (Kaup 102). As Christiane Guillois observes, the doctor uses language to exorcise the others’ existential anguish.36

  2. Yet, as the doctor agrees to tell Nora his tale of the night, it becomes increasingly palpable that there is a logic of non sequitur between Nora’s obsessive, repetitive questions (“What am I to do?”, 91, 99, 136, etc.) and his increasingly long, rambling, excessive philosophical monologues. On the one hand, this shows that the communication between them is limited. Although both of them question the meaning of existence, they remain like monads enveloped in their separate universes: “Singularities proper to each monad are extended as far as the singularities of others and in all senses. Every monad thus expresses the entire world. But obscurely and dimly because it is finite and the world is infinite”.37 Thus, the narrative foregrounds the limits of individual perception, thereby questioning the possibility of identification with the other which allows one to feel empathy and compassion. It seems to call into question Nancy’s idea that the essence of Being is communication: “The understanding of Being is nothing other than an understanding of others, which means, in every sense, understanding others through ‘me’ and understanding ‘me’ through others, the understanding of one another [des uns des autres]. One could say even more simply that Being is communication”.38 On the other hand, several elements emerge that make the reader wonder who exactly is speaking through the doctor’s voice. Paradoxically, although on one level the doctor is the culmination of Nightwood’s “freak show” of “singulars”, it becomes increasingly clear that on another level he is to be understood as a figure that is to some extent collective and impersonal. Just as in “The Squatter” he suddenly turns from a gay and colorful drinking companion into “an almost professional” master of ceremonies orchestrating the excesses of “insane passion” of “woman for woman” (82), in “Watchman, What of the Night?” he is posited as a kind of love doctor Nora visits in an attempt to alleviate her love sickness, a task he approaches in a similar quasi-professional manner.39 He suddenly usurps the narrative voice, acquiring the superhuman dimensions of a Tiresias-like oracle or shaman, a cantor of the “singulars” of the night, or a “god of darkness” (134) as he suggestively designates himself. His identity is superhuman and intrinsically plural, he is himself a “we”, a “first-person plural”,40 oscillating between male and female, between “The Scalpel and the Scriptures” (162), and between the psychoanalyst and the philosopher: “Ask Dr. Mighty O’Connor; the reason the doctor knows everything is because he’s been everywhere at the wrong time and has now become anonymous” (89). The fact that he “dresses to lie beside himself” (86) may be understood through the lens of Nancy’s idea that “[e]ach one is beside-himself” because “From the very start, the structure of the ‘Self,’ even considered as a kind of unique and solitary ‘self,’ is the structure of the ‘with.’ Solipsism, if one wants to use this category, is singular plural”.41 Yet, on another level, he may be interpreted not only as the embodiment of an extreme individual singularity but also as an incarnation of the “night”: it is significant that the doctor is the gynecologist who helped bring Nora into the world, and that he “know[s] what none of us know until we have died” (161). He ostensibly embodies the three types of night that Pascal Quignard describes, the uterine night before birth as a lost point of origin, the night of sleep, and the night of death as the decomposition of the singular individual:

    Il y a trois nuits.

Avant la naissance ce fut la nuit. C’est la nuit utérine.

Une fois nés, au terme de chaque jour, c’est la nuit terrestre. Nous tombons de sommeil au sein d’elle. Comme le trou de la fascination absorbe, l’obscurité astrale engloutit et nous rêvons en elle. Et si c’est par la nuit qui est en nous, interne, que nous parlons, c’est dans la nuit externe, quotidienne, qui semble à nos yeux venir du ciel, que nous nous touchons.

Enfin, après la mort, l’âme se décompose dans une troisième sorte de nuit. La nuit qui régnait à l’intérieur du corps se dissout dans un effacement que nous ne pouvons anticiper. Cette nuit n’a plus aucun sens pour s’aborder. C’est la nuit infernale.

Ainsi y a-t-il une nuit éminemment sensorielle, totalement sensorielle, qui précède l’opposition astrale du jour et la nuit. Il y a une nuit avant qu’apparaisse à nos yeux le soleil au débouché de la parturition. Nous procédons tous de cette poche d’ombre. (8-9)

  1. Since the doctor is the being that helped bring Nora into the world, providing her with a point of origin, his tiny womb-like room, strewn with “a rusty pair of forceps, a broken scalpel” (85) and other odd instruments, seems like a dream-like reminder of the memory of the uterine night, the night of origin. He is also the one to whom she goes to learn about the night of sleep, which undoes individual identity:

“I used to think”, Nora said, “that people just went to sleep […] now I see that the night does something to a person’s identity, even when asleep”.

“Ah!” exclaimed the doctor. “Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his ‘identity’ is no longer his own, his ‘trust’ is not with him, and his ‘willingness’ is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous. He sleeps in a Town of Darkness, member of a secret brotherhood. […] We wake from our doings in a deep sweat for that they happened in a house without an address, in a street in no town, citizened with people with no names with which to deny them. Their very lack of identity makes them ourselves. (87, 94)

This loss of individual identity and entanglement in a collective and anonymous “secret brotherhood” of sleep is particularly menacing for the lover who has found their “second person singular”: as the Doctor says, “For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes […] that destroys his heart; he wakes her suddenly, only to look the hyena in the face that is her smile, as she leaves that company” (94). This endless blind search for one’s lost “other half” is far from being an individual plight, and seems to be an intrinsic part of the human condition as a whole, multiplied in endless repetition:

“What am I to do?”

“Ah, mighty uncertainty!” said the doctor. “Have you thought of all the doors that have shut at night and opened again? Of women who have looked about with lamps, like you, and who have scurried on past feet? Like a thousand mice they go this way and that, now fast, now slow, some halting behind doors, some trying to find the stairs, all approaching or leaving their misplaced mouse-meat that lies in some cranny, on some couch, down on some floor, behind some cupboard; and all the windows, great and small, from which love and fear have peered, shining and in tears. Put those windows end to end and it would be a casement that would reach around the world; and put those thousand eyes into one eye and you would have the night combed with the great blind searchlight of the heart. (99-100)

Framed by the uterine night and the night of death, the human condition emerges as a collective nightmare, of endlessly losing one’s bearings, and wandering lost and “dismantled” by love, goaded on by the mirage of finding a sense of self, fixity, and completion through a union with another. Thus, this philosophical reflection on love and its devastating effects on the individual self ultimately grows into a reflection on the futility of human existence as a whole. Rather than heal Nora from her sickness, the doctor’s monologues unleash an even greater despair, triggered by the awareness of the futility of human existence and the even greater futility of trying to find meaning and consolation through language, which Monika Kaup associates with the baroque:

The disintegration of the doctor’s epistemological mastery shows baroque desengaño, disillusionment – the revelation that knowledge is but a dream and a fiction. As the Doctor steps into the foreground in Nightwood’s final discursive chapters, his circumlocutions, digressions, and apologies gradually increase to a full-fledged baroque “horror of the void” – a horror of the magnitude of pain – which, as all parties involved realize, will reign after the inevitable ceasing of words. (Kaup 102-103)

Significantly, although the doctor’s histrionic and fundamentally plural personality thwarts any melodrama and any sentimental or confessional effusions of emotion, he himself grows increasingly unsettled by his own monologues, which foregrounds the tendency of language itself to go awry, to lead to a dead end, and to trigger further distress rather than consolation: “To think is to be sick” (168).

  1. Although the legacy of the baroque aesthetics and philosophy is palpable in Nightwood, it is also possible to see the doctor as the mouthpiece of Barnes’s strikingly original form of queer existentialism, a voice at once collective and singular, anonymous. On one level, as linguistic excess yields to an existential void, this voice veers toward a more general existential nihilism, foregrounding the futility, the absurdity and the precariousness of human existence as a whole, as the word “nothing” gains increasing prominence in the final chapter, aided by the alliteration and consonance in “n”: “Can’t you be done now, can’t you give up? Now be still, now that you know what the world is about, knowing that it’s about nothing?” (132), “I have not only lived my life for nothing, but I’ve told it for nothing” (N, 165), “now nothing, but wrath and weeping!” (175, emphasis original). On another level, there is a specifically queer dimension of the doctor’s existential outcry, since the “singulars” of Nightwood seem forgotten by God, abandoned to their own predicament. As the doctor suggests to Nora, “Why is it that you want to talk to me? Because I’m the other woman that God forgot” (151). This leads to the question already raised at the beginning of this essay: to what extent should the marginals of Nightwood be seen as a community? On the one hand, there is ostensibly an affiliation between the doctor, Felix and Nora, which makes their communication an attempt to find meaning and consolation in spiritual union. On the other hand, of all of the characters of the novel, the doctor is most radically alone, and in the final chapters it becomes clear that his queer body catalyzes an even more acute existential anguish, which makes Nora’s sufferings pale in comparison. Although initially he seems immune to the need to love and be loved, and thus unscathed by its devastating effects on the self, his ironic superiority is dismantled as he reveals himself to be in the throes of a much more thorough identity crisis, the one of being a woman trapped in a man’s body. The doctor’s depiction of his ideal vision of female selfhood, which reads as a parody of the convention of the Renaissance blason describing woman as a sum of ideal parts, foregrounds the impossible yet extremely powerful lure of the mirage of having a whole, essentialized identity:

Am I to blame if I’ve been summoned before and this is my last and oddest call? In the old days I was possibly a girl in Marseilles thumping the dock with a sailor, and perhaps it’s that memory that haunts me. The wise men say that the remembrance of things past is all that we have for a future, and am I to blame if I’ve turned up this time as I shouldn’t have been, when it was a high soprano I wanted, and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king’s kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner? And what do I get but a face on me like an old child’s bottom – is that a happiness, do you think? (97)

Haunted by his non-conformity to his own vision of identity, the doctor is radically singular, unable to feel empathy for the other. This explains why, although Nora goes to him to find consolation and understanding, increasingly their conversation turns into a dialogue of the deaf, generating frustration, even animosity: A broken heart have you! I have falling arches, flying dandruff, a floating kidney, shattered nerves, and a broken heart! […] Oh poor blind cow! Keep out of my feathers, you ruffle me the wrong way and flit about, stirring my misery!” (164, emphasis in original). In this way, in the figure of the doctor, who embodies the idea of being radically sui generis, having no “second person singular”, Barnes anticipates both the rise of existentialism starting from the 1940s, and later debates about queer and transgender identity. Although the final chapter of the novel puts the emphasis on Nora being reunited with Robin, fulfilling the doctor’s promise that “one dog will find them both” (113), it is in the excess of his monologues that the novel reaches the climax of its philosophical density.


  1. In conclusion, by rejecting the normative pressures to identically reproduce social and family models, the novel brings together different types of singular beings and being-singular, exploring the implications of the idea that “Being is being-with” and that the ‘with’ is at the heart of Being”.42 Robin Vote in particular embodies not only a fascinating, enigmatic, otherworldly alterity but also “a radical withdrawal from any communal relation, a secession labeled monstrous and inhuman”.43 By putting Felix’s and Nora’s obsession for Robin at the center of the narrative, the novel questions the boundaries of individual self and probes into one’s need to find meaning and fixity in union with another, positing this endless blind search for “the second person singular” as an essential part of the human condition while also addressing the particularities of same-sex bonds. While to some extent it gives the promise of forming an alternative community of marginal, queer denizens of the night – particularly through the friendships that Felix and Nora form with the doctor – , the narrative climax ultimately puts the emphasis on the futility of conversation and the limits of identification with the other. The figure of the doctor most poignantly catalyzes and foregrounds the implications of being one of a kind, sui generis (a term that also applies to the generic unclassifiability of the novel itself), as he raises, through his anguish of being a woman trapped in a man’s body, the question of what exactly constitutes individual identity.

Works Cited

Barnes, Djuna. Nightwood. 1936. New York: New Directions, 2006.

Barnes, Djuna. The Book of Repulsive Women. 1915. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994.

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. 1928. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Bombaci, Nancy. “Heredity, Transvestism and the Limits of Self-Fashioning in Nightwood”. Freaks in Late Modernist American culture: Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes, Tod Browning, and Carson McCullers. New York: Peter Lang, 2006. 65-80.

Boone, Joseph Allen. “Djuna Barnes, Nightwood: Worlds of Night in the City of Light”. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 232-250.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Caselli, Daniela. Improper Modernism: Djuna Barnes’s Bewildering Corpus. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

De Lauretis, Teresa. The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. Le Pli: Leibnitz et le baroque. Paris: Minuit, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque. Ed. and trans. Tom Conley. London: The Athlone Press, 1993.

Deshmukh, Priyanka. “Of Divine Idiots and Wise Men: Idiocy in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood”. L’Atelier 9.1 (2017): 86-103.

DeVore, Lynn. “The Backgrounds of Nightwood: Robin, Felix, and Nora”. Journal of Modern Literature 10.1 (Mar 1, 1983): 71-90.

Frank, Joseph. The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature. Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1963.

Gammel, Irene. Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity – A Cultural Biography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Gillespie, Margaret. “‘The Triumph of the Epicene Style’: Nightwood and Camp”. Miranda [Online], 12 | 2016, Online since 02 March 2016, connection on 13 July 2020. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/8634 ; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.8634

Glavey, Brian. “Dazzling Estrangement: Modernism, Queer Ekphrasis, and the Spatial Form of Nightwood”. PMLA 124.3 (May, 2009): 749-763.

Goody, Alex. Modernist Articulations: a Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Guillois, Christiane. « The arrested step », Nightwood de Djuna Barnes : « Une image est une halte que fait l’esprit entre deux incertitudes »”. LISA e-journal 7.3 (2009): 319-332.

Hardie, Melissa Jane. “Repulsive Modernism: Djuna Barnes’ The Book of Repulsive Women”. Journal of Modern Literature 29.1 (Autumn, 2005): 118-132.

Kaup, Monika. “The Neobaroque in Djuna Barnes”. Modernism/modernity 12.1 (2005): 85-110.

Martins, Susana S. “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire in Djuna Barnes’s ‘Nightwood.’” A Journal of Women Studies 20.3 (1999): 108-126.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Être singulier pluriel. Paris: Galilée, 2013.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Pender, Elizabeth, and Cathryn Setz, eds. Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019.

Quignard, Pascal. La nuit sexuelle. Paris: Flammarion, 2007.

Smith, Victoria. “A Story Beside(s) Itself: The Language of Loss in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood”. PMLA 114 (1999): 194-206.

Wittig, Monique. “The Point of View: Universal or Particular?” Feminist Issues 3 (1983): 62-69.

1 A. Goody, Modernist Articulations, 2.

2 M.J. Hardie, “Repulsive Modernism”, 122.

3 L. Calhoun, qtd. in D. Caselli, Improper Modernism, 198.

4 S. S. Lanser, “Introduction”, in Ladies Almanack, xv-li.

5 J.A. Boone, Libidinal Currents, 233.

6 J.A. Boone, Libidinal Currents, 235, his emphasis.

7 As Caselli explains, “queer” is a word which Barnes herself often used, “both in its nineteenth-century meaning of strange and in its early twentieth-century, Greenwich Village-inflected, current meaning”. (D. Caselli, Improper Modernism, 173). Her work can productively approached through the lens of queer theory because of the way in which she places non-normative identities, bodies and sexualities in the foreground of her narratives. Yet, as Joseph Allen Boone observes, “reifying same-sex love as the lens through which to read [Nightwood’s] narrative proves an oddly unsatisfying enterprise […] [since] reading [the novel] primarily through a lesbian lens fails to capture the range of queerness that the text embraces”. (J.A.Boone, Libidinal Currents, 234-235, his emphasis). Barnes herself was wary of being perceived solely as a lesbian writer and even denied that she was a lesbian. Monique Wittig also discusses this aspect of Barnes’s work in her essay “The Point of View: Universal or Particular?” often quoted by Barnes scholars: “Djuna Barnes dreaded that the lesbians should make her their writer, and that by doing this they should reduce her work to one dimension”. (Wittig, “The Point of View”, 66, her italics). Susana S. Martins productively argues that Barnes rejected lesbianism because she rejected “Freud’s theorization of the homosexual, or ‘invert’” and because she “could never fully accept the category “lesbian” as long as it was defined in Freudian terms  – that is, as an illness or aberration” (S. Martins, “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire”, 110).

8 S. Benstock, qtd. in J. A. Boone, Libidinal Currents, 233.

9 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 3, his emphasis.

10 J. Frank, The Widening Gyre, 31-32.

11 T.S. Eliot, “Introduction”, in Nightwood, xx-xxi.

12 D. Barnes, Nightwood, 12.

13 J. Winterson, “Preface”, in Nightwood, x.

14 For an examination of Barnes’s rather ambivalent use of the figure of the Wandering Jew and the critical debates surrounding her potential anti-semitism, see “‘The Jew’s History a Commodity’: Barnes, Nightwood, and the Jew” in A. Goody, Modernist Articulations, 188-191.

15 N. Bombaci, “Heredity, Transvestism and the Limits of Self-Fashioning in Nightwood”, 68.

16 For a discussion of Felix’s false aristocratic past and the ellipsis surrounding Felix’s birth, see Priyanka Deshmukh’s article “Of Divine Idiots and Wise Men: Idiocy in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood”, 87-88.

17 J. A. Boone, Libidinal Currents, 235.

18 A. Goody, Modernist Articulations, 190.

19 See I. Gammel, Baroness Elsa, 192. See also L. de Vore’s article “Robin, Felix and Nora: The Backgrounds of Nightwood” where she contends that Baroness Elsa provided the inspiration for the character of Robin Vote, who also becomes a “Baronin” through her marriage to Felix.

20 B. Glavey, “Dazzling Estrangement”, 757.

21 M. Kaup, “The Neobaroque in Djuna Barnes”, 98.

22 G. Deleuze, The Fold, 15.

23  A. Goody, Modernist Articulations, 190.

24  A. Goody, Modernist Articulations, 190.

25 B. Glavey, “Dazzling Estrangement”, 755.

26 As Margaret Gillespie observes, many of Nightwood’s singular characters are not round and genuine but flat and conspicuously artificial: “even as signifiers they barely qualify as fictional characters” (M. Gillespie, “Nightwood and Camp”, par. 23). With the exception of Nora, they seem deprived of subjectivity and seem to function as flat emblems of singularity, emphasizing surface rather than substance and often theatrically unsettling boundaries of gender and racial identity, an aspect that Gillespie attributes to the campiness of the novel.

27 L. Kannestine, qtd. in J.A. Boone, Libidinal Currents, 242.

28 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 5.

29 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 5.

30 A. Goody, Modernist Articulations, 172.

31 V. Smith, “A Story Beside(s) Itself”, 201.

32 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 65.

33 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural.

34 J.A. Boone, Libidinal Currents, 242.

35 These Shakespearean references underscore the fact that gender is performative, as Judith Butler argues in her seminal book Gender Trouble among others. Martins also underscores the performative nature of lesbian desire in Barnes’s novel: referring to Teresa De Lauretis’s The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire, she suggests that in Nora and Robin’s relationship there is a strong emphasis on “cross-gender role-playing performed self-consciously” and “the performance and reversal of sexual roles” (S. Martins, “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire”, 123).

36 “Matthew O’Connor, l’homme travesti, sorte de Tirésias de l’ombre, médecin clandestin et sacrificiel, tente d’exorciser par la parole l’angoisse existentielle des autres : ‘to take the mortal agony out of their guts’”, C. Guillois, “The Arrested Step”, 320.

37 G. Deleuze, The Fold, 86.

38 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 27-28.

39 Martins also reads the figure of the doctor as a parody of Sigmund Freud, and the scene in which he is meant to help Nora as a parody of the “talking cure”. She suggests that Barnes “sets up Matthew O’Connor  – the garrulous, homosexual, unlicensed gynecologist  – as a foil and type of Dr. Freud the psychoanalyst” (S. Martins, “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire”, 111).

40 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 5. Although this idea is most radically brought to the the foreground in the character of the doctor, the idea of a plural and essentially unknowable identity is also present in the other characters: for instance, in Felix’s split between his desire to perpetuate tradition and his irresistible attraction to the marginals inhabiting the fringes of society, or in Nora’s split between her initial position of an aloof intellectual and her later headlong plunge into an obsession with Robin, an affect which leads her to an abject position.

41 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 96.

42 J.-L. Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 30.

43 B. Glavey, “Dazzling Estrangement”, 759.